Exponential Tech Doesn’t Serve Social Good
Why create solutions ‘at scale’ if operating at scale is itself the main problem?

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 1 October 2021

the main article image

We all want to do good. Well, a great many of us want to do good. We recognize that the climate is in peril, corporations are dangerously extractive, wealth disparity is at all-time highs, our kids are self-destructively addicted to social media, politics has descended into a reality TV show with paranoid features, and that civilization itself has only about another 20 years before some combination of the above threats makes life unrecognizable or even unsustainable.

The good news, at least according to the majority of invitations I get to participate in conferences and with organizations, is that there’s an app or technology or network or platform or, most often these days, a token that can fix some or all of this. The latest frame around the technosolutionist frenzy is called web 3.0, which has come to mean the decentralized sort of internet characterized by TOR networks (basically, Napster and BitTorrent where everything is hosted everywhere) and the blockchain (a new form of automated ledger).

This generation of distributed technology, it is hoped, will engender and facilitate a new era of environmental stewardship, economic equality, racial justice, democratic values, and civic harmony. Even better, the tokens at the heart of these blockchains for global good will make people rich. Sure, those who get in early will do the best, but the magic of smart contracts will somehow raise all boats, letting us feel great about doing well by doing good — secure in the knowledge that the returns we’re seeing on all this “impact investing” are the deserved surplus fruits of our having dedicated our careers and portfolios to public service.

But getting such efforts off the ground is always the hard part. There are so many terrific people and organizations out there, each building platforms and apps and networks and blockchains, too. How do we break through the noise and bring all those many decentralized organizations together into the one, single centralized decentralized network? And once we do, how do we prove that ours really is the one that will solve the problems? Because without enough buy-in, figuratively and literally, the token won’t be worth anything and all that good won’t get done.

So we use the first money in — or even our own money — to build a culture, a movement, a website, a social network, a narrative lab, a think tank, a convention, an events series, a knowledge production company, a line of kids books, a school curriculum, a K street consultancy, or a program of webinars. All of them describing the values that we want to be associated with the token, and inspiring all sorts of great, world-fixing, blockchain-based solutions. If we build it, they will come. And if they come, we don’t even have to build it. They will. And maybe we can give awards to the people who come up with the best stuff. Awards denominated in our token, of course.

This faith in new technologies to solve our problems isn’t new. Sometimes, it even comes true. While they all end up having some unintended negative consequences of their own, technologies such as the wheel, plumbing, electricity, microscopy, and computing have all led to alleviation of suffering and advancement of standards of living.

When we consider problems such as poverty and global warming, however, I’m not so sure a new technology is the answer — especially not one that amounts to a better ledger. There are kids being sent into caves to dig up the rare earth metals we need to build computers that, among other things, mine our bitcoin and host all of our pro-social online networks. Do those young slaves really need a better way to demonstrate “proof of work?”

Does the development of new online global networks of doing-well-by-doing-good social impact investors do anything to undermine their commitment to the exponential growth targets they’ve pursued all along, and the collateral damage of those businesses? Does a plan to transition us from Facebook and Twitter to less abusive clones of these services really put us in a better position to engage meaningfully and purposefully, or is it just a wellness strategy for the elite?

For the master plan to work, we’d have to get Africa and India off the commercial platforms, too, even though they already use them quite more effectively than we do here in the United States. And then we’d have to figure out how to keep those people online by subsidizing free compatible devices and access for them, the way Google and Facebook and the other “bad guys” do currently. As Ethan Zuckerman likes to say, better to hack and use the compromised platforms people have access to right now than waste our time, energy, and resources building marginally better ones that aren’t already on their devices.

But if we don’t build new platforms, then we’re not doing an original “new new thing.” We get no credit, no acclaim, and none of that international fame for having come up with a totally original idea with a new name and a new ethos to solve the old problems. I mean, only new ideas and new narratives can address these truly “wicked” problems, right?

Wrong. The answers to our collective woes are not to be found in more of the same old obsession with novelty. That’s the old paradigm, my friends. No, the truly new paradigm would be to begin to recognize that we have had the real solutions to these problems all along. Yes, Dorothy, you’ve been wearing those ruby slippers this whole time.

We don’t solve for climate and poverty by reverse engineering blockchain or the web to these challenges. A better web and a more stable, fluid token would be nice, sure. So would better video games, better lawn chairs, and better prestige TV.

But the path to solving our combined economic and social crises is not to retrofit exponential digital technologies to social good. Social networking is primarily about getting famous. Making the planet more livable, on the other hand, means getting local. Surrendering abstract universal fame for embodied local participation. Likewise, solving the economic divide means promoting mutual aid and collective ownership — engendering trust between co-workers and cooperatives — not substituting for trust with a proof-of-stake cryptocurrency and getting rich in the process.

Why create solutions “at scale” if operating at scale is itself the main problem? The discussion of how to employ exponential digital technologies in the service of global good is so much more convoluted and self-interested than the simpler and actionable discussion of how to stop fucking up this planet and fucking over its people and how to do so without even staking a claim on the solutions.

It’s time for at least 99% of us to just stop talking, get off the stage, close our screens, and help our neighbors.